Posted on January 20, 1997 in Washington Watch

The Hebron agreement endorsed by both the Likud government of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority is, in fact, significant in several respects.

The agreement has, to be sure, generated some hysterical reactions. Some Israeli rightists, for example, have rejected it as an “act of betrayal” or “suicide for the Jewish people.” Former Likud Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir declared Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu a “traitor to the nationalist movement.”

Meanwhile some Arab writers have termed the agreement a “farce” or an “insult to Arab rights.” Many Arabs fear that the loopholes left in the agreement will allow Israel to effectively close the door on future withdrawals from the West Bank territory ending further progress toward Palestinian sovereignty.

On the other hand, there are those in Israel and the Arab world, and especially here in the U.S. who, like dewy-eyed romantics, proclaim Netanyahu “reborn” and a full “convert to the peace camp” and heir to the Rabin-Peres legacy.

All of this is exaggerated and quite off the mark. It is as if some of the Hebron agreement’s critics and supporters are engaging in a form of wish-fulfillment and projection—seeing in an oblique text what they most fear seeing. In this they are reacting to their own hopes and fears—and not the reality of the agreement itself.

The significance of the Hebron agreement is not in the text of the agreement itself. It is rather in the process that led to the agreement and the process that may now unfold in the wake of the agreement.

The road to this agreement was a long and treacherous one marked by bloodshed and paved with substantial international pressure.

His recent statements not-withstanding, Benyamin Netanyahu was not in the beginning a supporter of Oslo or of a negotiated settlement with Palestinians. As his government’s spokesperson in Madrid he could not even easily say the word “Palestinian,” insisting instead to maintain the official position that Israel was negotiating with a Jordanian delegation that included “inhabitants of the territories.”

During his campaign for President, he railed against the Oslo agreement and its Israeli patrons Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres, decrying any agreement with the P.L.O. To his supporters he promised that he would not “shake hands with Arafat” and he would not turn land over to “terrorists.”

This rejection of Arafat was not personal, it was fueled by an ideological rejection of the Palestinian corporate identity. Refusing to shake hands with Arafat and refusing to honor agreements reached with “terrorists” was a way of affirming that Palestinians were not a people with a separate identity and therefore entitled to sovereignty.

During the past six months Netanyahu has been forced to at least tactically shift his approach both to Oslo and to the Palestinians. Even with the Hebron agreement and his handshakes with P.N.A. President Arafat, Netanyahu continues to maintain to his supporters that he has not changed. In the Prime minister’s comments to the Israeli Knesset before this vote on Hebron, he attempted to wrap the agreement in Likudist ideology. The agreement, he insisted, does not represent withdrawal from the territories, only a redeployment.

But with all of these protestations and efforts at interpretation, a process unfolded over the past six months that has moved the Prime Minister along the path of acceptance—and it is a process of pressure which will not diminish in time.

What the Netanyahu government has learned is that the world community will not tolerate the view that the peace process is an internal Israeli issue. The successful completion of a lasting peace with the Palestinians is critical to the Palestinian people, all the Arab states with which Israel has previously made peace and is in the vital interests of the U.S. and major European powers.

What the violence of September made clear was that Palestinians would not tolerate backtracking on Israeli commitments or accept unilateral Israeli action. The international reaction to that eruption and to Netanyahu’s repeated comments regarding expanding settlements in the West Bank made clear that there are limits to what the Palestinians, Arabs, Europe, and the U.S. could accept.

Tension with Arab states, coolness from Europe, and pressure from the U.S. have become factors Netanyahu and his government have been forced to take into account as they chart their course of action.

So while these factors of regional and international pressure have not personally changed Netanyahu, they have forced his government to move and in the process have brought about other changes.

Despite the Prime Minister’s attempt to convince the extreme nationalists and religious fundamentalists in his coalition that he has not abandoned the Likud vision of Eretz Israel, they in fact, feel betrayed. An internal and intense political debate is taking place in Israel and it is within the nationalist camp on the right wing. And since external pressure forcing Israeli movement toward implementation of the accords will not let up, the internal Israeli debate will only intensify and may in the end produce Israeli violence. Just as the international community insisted that the Palestinian leadership deal forcefully with violent movements, netanyahu will himself be put to the same test.

Labor leaders Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres could not provoke this debate. And they could not have produced a Knesset vote of 87-17 in favor of any agreement with the Palestinians. Against their desires to sign agreements with the P.L.O., the Israeli right wing stood united. In fact, it was fear of this block that inhibited the Labor government from implementing many provisions of the Oslo accords.

Even if Peres had been elected, his maneuverability would have been limited by his fear of losing support to the right. And international pressure would have been limited for fear of weakening a “pro-peace” Labor government. With Netanyahu at the helm the dynamic has changed. There is less reluctance internationally to press the Israeli government to honor agreements and cracks have begun to appear within the right-wing block.

Finally, it is useful to consider yet another impact of this process and that is the evolving Likud acceptance of Palestinians as a people. This has taken place on a personal level as that government has been forced to deal with and develop a relationship with their Palestinian counterparts. Even Netanyahu himself speaks very differently about Arafat. It has also begun to reflect itself on a conceptual level as various Likud leaders, including leaving the Prime Minister, have begun to speak about a Palestinian state, albeit with “limited sovereignty” and not at the 1967 borders and not with Jerusalem as its capital, etcetera, etcetera.

All of these reservations and exceptions aside, a transformation has begun to take place. The Israeli Prime Minister will continue to make a valiant effort to force fit what has evolved into a ideological mold in order to calm the fears of his supporters. He, himself, may still hold the hope that nothing has happened and the inevitable can be denied. But despite the denials and the anguish they produce, change has taken place. It has been forced and it will require still more force and pressure. But there is change. To see it, however, one must look not at the Hebron agreement itself but what led to the agreement and what is happening as a result of the agreement.

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